Credit: Courtesy

In front of a standing-room-only crowd, the Solvang City Council on Monday approved a proposal to fly rainbow banners to celebrate Pride Month, reversing a previous vote that sparked public outcry and an international flap. Cheers and applause rang out as members of the audience shook posters reading: “We see you. We hear you. We support you.”

The approval represented a compromise between the applicant, the Rainbow House Inc., an LGBTQ resource center, and the council, who heard from critics that the banners were “political” and “agenda-driven,” and therefore not appropriate for the public right of way.

The eight downtown banners will fly for two weeks in June, but not for the full month, and they will no longer be accompanied by rainbow crosswalks. Mayor Mark Infanti cast the deciding vote, switching sides to join Councilmembers Elizabeth Orona and Claudia Orona (no relation) in support.

“I want to acknowledge this is probably very uncomfortable for many people who don’t understand [the LGBTQ] community,” said Councilmember Elizabeth Orona. “But that is the point. We need to move forward and accept some change and accept some discomfort.”

Councilmember Robert Clarke maintained his opposition to the project, expressing concern over earlier drag shows hosted by the Rainbow House and the “grooming” effect they may have on children. “I’m not a bad person for not understanding drag shows,” Clarke said in response to the backlash his comments have received. “And I’m not a bad person for thinking there’s a lot of politics involved in this.” 

Clarke indirectly addressed the elephant in the room: recent emails and text messages in which he described transgender people as “unpredictable” and referred to Solvang’s LGBTQ residents and their supporters as “losers,” “clowns,” and “assholes” who spread “poison” across the community. “Their campaign will not relent until we all cave to a far left woke agenda,” he said in one group email.

“I just speak my mind,” Clarke said Monday. “That is who I am and that is what I do.” Clarke also emphasized he wasn’t acting alone and that his views simply reflected those of his constituents. “I represent the residents of Solvang,” he said. “I believe I’m doing what they’re asking me to do.” (Clarke lost his race last November to represent District 4 but was subsequently appointed to fill an empty seat on the council.)

A number of public speakers directed their comments toward Clarke. Lifelong Solvang resident Elizabeth Walther, who said she and her children are members of the LGBTQ community, told him, “My family is not political. Our existence is not political.” She called his statements about gay and transgender residents “absolutely unacceptable.”

Mary Beth Lee, also a Solvang native, addressed another comment by Clarke that he doesn’t understand the concept of Pride. “Pride is the opposite of shame,” Lee said. “And the LGBTQ people have endured a history of shaming and marginalization for who they are and who they love.” Pride is about acting in the opposite spirit and affirming their dignity and place in society, Lee explained. “And if you can’t understand that, you’re just ignorant.”

Steve Cox said the banners were not meant to alienate Solvang’s straight residents, as some opponents had charged. “It’s not going to be two weeks of taunting, nose-thumbing, or mocking of non-gay folks,” he said, “but a chance to show grace and hospitality on a village scale.”

Meighan Dietenhoffer, a descendent of Danish immigrants who now operates Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, pushed against criticism that the banners would hurt business. “Having a more diverse community and having more diverse visitors is good for tourism,” she said. She described the negative response to the banners as “backlash to change.” 

Solvang’s demographics have shifted in recent years, Dietenhoffer acknowledged, “and I think that’s hard for some people. But to me, change and moving forward, especially if it’s including and accepting more people, is a good thing that we don’t need to be afraid of.” Dietenhoffer concluded by stating she “would love to have something that Solvang is in the news for that my cousins in Denmark don’t call and make fun of me about.”

Others held firm to the belief the banners were a political statement that had no place in Solvang. “The dogged pursuit of the matter by the applicants is fomenting divide in our community,” said Colleen Estrada. And they took exception with the idea that the city struggles with tolerance. “To have someone, namely the sponsor of this proposal, stand up and say this special place is something other than a kind and welcoming town, that’s just flat-out wrong,” said Renee Condit.

Jesse Bengoa argued if the council gave the go-ahead to the Pride proposal, it would be forced to approve displays for other community interests, including Second Amendment and anti-abortion causes. “Otherwise,” she said, “the council will be exhibiting extremely discriminatory behavior and setting itself up for legal intervention.”

The council heeded the warning from Bengoa and others and ultimately voted to prohibit all non-city specific banners in the future, meaning those promoting the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, Solvang Theaterfest, and Music in the Park will no longer be allowed. Existing banners that feature a Danish flag and crown will still be permitted.

“It sucks,” said Councilmember Claudia Orona, “that we are in this position.”

Get News in Your Inbox


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.